The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (Review)

Few Australian films have attracted the same degree of praise as The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith which has received its first ever Blu-Ray release thanks to Umbrella Entertainment. 40 years after its original release the team at Umbrella bring us a beautiful re-release of this classic award-winning piece of Aussie cinema and it’s just as relevant now as it ever was.

Tommy Lewis as Jimmie Blacksmith

Set just before Australian federation, this tale is the trials and tribulations of a young half-Aboriginal man trying to find his way in a world of oppression. Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) is coached by his uncle Tabidgi (Steve Dodd) in the ways of his people but raised by a white pastor (Jack Thompson) who discourages him from mixing with his Aboriginal kin. As he reaches maturity Jimmie becomes alienated. Repulsed by the alcoholism of the Aboriginals who take his earnings for booze and bullied by the whites who deny him his earnings and constantly abuse him, Jimmie is trapped between two worlds that both hold him back. Being a half-blood he belongs to neither world and spends his days fighting against his instinct to rebel against them both. The racial dichotomy of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith speaks to the struggles faced by Aboriginal peoples in the wake of the arrival of Europeans who brought with them the destructive forces of disease and alcohol as well as their prejudices, treating the Aboriginals as sub-humans worthy of nothing more than scorn and domination. It also highlights the difficulties faced by mixed race individuals who were frequently outcast from both white and Aboriginal societies. At a time when being of a mixed race was cause for almost universal scorn Jimmie Blacksmith tries to push ahead with optimism. He joins the police but is pushed to the edge by the evil acts he is forced to be complicit in by the repulsive Farrell (Ray Barrett) and flees. Becoming a fencer, Jimmie is a skilled craftsman who is again and again denied his rightful earnings by racist employers. Taking a job with the Newby family things begin to look up. He falls in love and marries Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor), a promiscuous white woman, and builds a hut for them to live in. Members of his Aboriginal community stay with Jimmie, declaring his marriage to a white woman is a bad totem. This in turn raises the hackles of Jack Newby (Don Crosby), the station manager, who refuses to pay Jimmie until he clears his relatives away. When his family is denied food he snaps and goes on a murderous revenge spree taking his brother Mort (Freddy Reynolds) with him. Jimmie becomes the most wanted man in the country, the most infamous bushranger since Ned Kelly.

Armed with little more than an axe, Jimmie Blacksmith declares war on white men.

The film is based on the book by Thomas Kenneally which is a fictionalised account of the life of Jimmy Governor. Closely following the real Governor story, while departing in aspects the film is still very faithful to the history in comparison to some films and books about historical figures. The screenplay is soulful, skillfully weaving humour and pathos throughout to highlight the themes of colonialism, disenfranchisement, racism and the plight of the Aboriginal people at the turn of the last century (which was just as relevant in 1978 when the film was first released). The light-hearted moments at the beginning soon evaporate into a harrowing tale of racial hatred and revenge zig-zagging between the world of whites and Aboriginals. You sympathise with Jimmie as he does all he can to succeed but is constantly knocked down but your sympathies are tested when he finally snaps and does the unthinkable. Fred Schepisi, who also adapted the screenplay from the novel, directs with deftness and intelligence, which is greatly facilitated by the superb cinematography of Ian Baker and the heart-wrenching score by Bruce Smeaton. Featuring stellar performances from newcomers and old hands such as Tommy Lewis, Freddy Reynolds, Steve Dodd, Ruth Cracknell and Peter Sumner, the film is gripping from beginning to end. Lewis in particular is remarkable, his charming, youthful naivete giving way to a scintillating rage that leaves the viewer with a heavy feeling in the pit of their stomach as the injustices of Jimmie’s life result in the inevitable retaliation.

Gilda (Angela Punch McGregor) tries to comfort Jimmie after a heart-breaking revelation.

The restoration of the print is absolutely glorious with rich colours and crisp details often sadly lacking in the majority of such releases. It would be easy to think in some instances that this was a film made only in the last few years with its vibrant colour palette and epic cinematography. The Blu-Ray transfer means that you can now blow it up on a home cinema to soak it all in without the fuzziness that comes with the usual DVD format or indeed some Blu-Ray re-issues. The special features are fantastic and include such gems as an interview with the film’s director Fred Schepisi and cinematographer Ian Baker that discusses a lot of the history of the film industry they emerged from and how that related to the making of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith; a report from Willesee at Seven showing people’s reaction to the premiere; a wonderfully detailed making of retrospective and a feature about the Aboriginal actors. Overall this is a complete package for film buffs.

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Jimmie (Tommy Lewis) and Mort (Freddy Reynolds) become bushrangers.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is not a film to be entered into lightly. The violence is hugely impactful, the rampage in the Newby household in particular noted for its impact on audiences. The depiction of racism in the film is potent and was considered to be very raw when the film was released. It must be noted that when The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith reached cinemas Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders had only been able to vote in Australia for thirteen years, only recognised by the census and Commonwealth laws for eleven, the governmental bodies that had facilitated the removal of Aboriginal children, known as the “stolen generation”, had only been dismantled for nine years, and the first Aboriginal parliamentarian, Neville Bonner, had gained a seat only six years before. Thus The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith was truly a product of its times. This film will break your heart, fill you with horror and rage at historical injustices and keep you spellbound by the absolute beauty of its visuals. For lovers of Australian stories and cinema it is a must have.

The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith is available now from Umbrella Entertainment. You can order your own copy here.

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